Some historical mentions of the Orcheston long grass meadows
Orcheston’s ‘long grasses’, one of over a hundred species of Agrostis, or bent grass, were once nationally famous and frequently referred to by agriculturalists and what we might now think of as botanists and scientists. They would travel great distances to this remote place on the Plain to observe the phenomena.
Because the grass from the two small areas of what is sometimes described as water meadows (to the north and south of the bridge over Elston Lane) gave a much greater yield than grass from an equivalent sized meadow it greatly boosted the agricultural economy of the parish.
Below are just some of what was written on the subject – unfortunately no substantial records exist from recent years, nor photos showing these ‘fabulous’ grasses, which could be up to 24 feet long and were said to be, in most years, from 10 to 12 feet in length. It is also said that on the wall of the old George Inn public house, now a private house, the longer lengths would be marked up, year by year.
A number of webpages refer to the long grasses. including one blogspot, a piece by Agnes Arber, a book by William Withering, and an extract from the original ‘Obfervations on the Orchefton Long Grafs’ by William George Maton. For many more try Googling “orcheston long grass“.
1794, Davies, Thomas, A General View of the Agriculture of Wiltshire, For the Board of Agriculture, by Thomas Davies of Longleat, Steward to the Marquis of Bath, p.41 “Long grass meadows. Nature has given a striking lesson on this subject in this very district, viz. In the two small meadows at Orcheston (six miles north-west of Amesbury), usually called the Wiltshire Long Grass Meads.
These meadows adjoin together, and contain, in the whole, only two acres and a half, and yet the crop they produce in a favourable year is so immense, and of so good a quality that the tythe hay of them was once (according to the information of the tenant) sold for five guineas.
Much has been said, and little understood, about these meadows, and the grass they produce.
Many proposals and attempts have been made to propagate the grasses, and many skilful botanists have returned from the spot without finding which was the grasses [sic], its appearance being so very different in different seasons.
It has not been till lately, that it was discovered by Mr Sole, of Bath, and communicated to the Bath Society, that the greatest part of the herbage of these meadows was nothing more than black couch or couchy bent.
Agrostis Stolonifera, one of the worst grasses in its native state the Kingdom produces, and the peculiar plague of Farmers in this particular district. It usually abounds in such arable lands as is too poor to bear the white couch (triticum repens) and it is the general and and almost only herbage of the old burn-beaked worn out downs, and in that situation is of that coarse, hard wing nature, that no cattle will eat it. It forms a thick tough rug over the land, that preserves itself and kills everything else. But in these meadows when abundantly fed with water it is of a juicy, succulent, nourishing quality, as grass, and makes the most desirable hay in the district, particularly for sheep.
These meadows lie in the upper part of the Bourn, that runs from Tilshead to Stapleford, and in some rivers the rivulet that passes through them is very inconsiderable. They are not laid out in regular form for watering, the supply of water being too irregular, but depend on the floods entirely; and being situate at a sharp turn in the valley, which is narrow at that spot, the water makes an eddy, and deposits its sediment upon them. The bottom is almost an entire bed of loose flints, so that the roots shoot freely in it, and produce long succulent shoots, which fall down, and taking root at the joints, shoot out and drop and root again, so that the stalk is frequently eight or ten feet in length from the original root, and though the crop is exceedingly thick on the ground, it is perhaps, not eighteen inches high.
Although this grass is most abundant in these two meadows, it is also very predominat in the greatest part of the meadows below it, on the same stream, and whenever the winters are productive of floods, the grass in all of them is abundant in quantity, succulent and juicy in quality, and the hay exceedingly nutritive. But in a scarce year of water, their produce is very small indeed, and that of a very bad quality.
On examination of other meadows, in different bourns in this district, the same grass appears uniformly to abound in those that are situated near the spring heads; and which in some years have plenty of water, and in some none at all; the same remark is as uniformly made on its variation in quantity and quality, according to the wetness or dryness of the weather and the most probable way of accounting for it, is, that it is almost the only grass, common to water meads, that will stand wet and dry. For though it will ive, and indeed flourishes most when under water, yet no dry weather will kill it.’
1797, Young, Arthur, Annals of Agriculture, Volume 28, 1797, p.365. “Returning to Amresbury, and the 3d, took the road to Orcheston to view that celebrated meadow, which for 200 years [this suggests that the meadow had been known of in the year 1600] has been described as very much exceeding all others in the kingdom. Previously to my registering the observations I made on it, it will be proper to insert here some extracts from the from the principal writers who have mentioned it.
The first, to my knowledge, is Norden, in 1600: “You do well to advance the credit of the Lord’s land, and you speak, I think, as you conceive, because you are not acquainted with meadows upon Dovebank, in Tan Dean, upon Severn side, Allermore the Lord’s meadow, in Crediton, and the meadows about the Welch pool, and especially a meadow not far from Salisbury, near a bourne upon the plain, that bears grass yearly, about ten feet long; though many think it incredible, yet, it is apparent that the grass is commonly sixteen feet long. It is made shorter before cattle can feed on it, and when cattle have fed their fill, hogs are made to fat with the remnant, namely with the knots and sap of the grass.” Surveyor’s Dialogue, 3rd edit, 1618, 4to, p.199.
The next is Robert Child, in Hartlit’s Legacy, 1651: “And though I cannot but very much commend these plants to my countrymen, knowing that they may be beneficial to this nation; yet, I especially recommend to unto them a famous kind of grass, growing in Wiltshire, nine miles from Salisbury at Maddington [sic], which may be better be called one of the wonders of this land, than the hawthorn tree, at Glastonbury, which superstition made so famous; for divers of the same kind are found elsewhere. You may find this grass briefly described in a book called Phytologia Britannica (which lately came forth and sets down even all the plants which have been found naturally growing in England) Gramen caninum, supinum longissimum, which groweth nine miles from Salisbury, at Mr Tucker’s [possibly this is ‘Mr Tooker’, who lived at Maddington, but it must surely be a reference to Orcheston rather than Maddington], wherewith they fat hogs, and which is 24 feet long; a thing almost incredible; yet commonly known to all that shire. Now, without question, if the seed of this grass be sown in other rich meadows, it will yield extraordinarily, though, perchance, not so much as in its proper place. Iw onder that those that live thereabouts, have not tried to fertilise their other meadows with it; for it is a peculiar species of grass; and, though some ingenious men have found about ninety species of grasses in the Island, yet there is none like to this, that can, by any means, be brought to such a height and sweetness.
Of the long English Grass in Wiltshire
The long grass in Wiltshire, mentioned in the Legacy, is occasioned by reason of a spacious sheep common adjoining. For, that every hasty shower washeth off the soil of the common, and bringeth it into a little meadow beneath, which maketh it incredibly fruitful.” – Legacy, 3rd edit, 1655, p.3.260.
Mr Stillingfleet says:
“In the index of dubious plants, at the end of Ray’s Synopsis, there is mention made of a grass, under the name of Gramen caninum supinum longissimum, growing not far from Salisbury, 24 feet long. This must, by its length, be a grass witha creeping stalk; and that there is a grass in Wiltshire, growing in watery meadows, so valuable, that an acre of it lets from 10l to 12l. I have been informed by several persons. These circumstances incline me to think that it must be the …. ….. [two unreadable words] but, whatever grass it may be, it certainly must deserve to be inquired after.” – Stillingfleet’s Miscellaneous Tracts, 1762, 8vo, p.387.
The Bath Society made inquiries concerning this meadow, and printed the following letter:
On a Peculiar Species of Grass, Found at Orcheston, on Salisbury Plains, Wiltshire.
By a Gentleman of Dorchester.
“I am favoured with your secretary’s obliging letter, in reply to mine respecting the grass seed, and it gives me satisfaction, that I can herewith send you a specimen in the blade, for your inspection. This grass is found at Orcheston St Mary, about nine miles from Salisbury, in a meadow belonging to Lord Rivers, now in the occupation of farmer Hayward. This meadow being situated on a small brook, is frequently overflowed, and sometimes continued so a great part of the winter. It bears the greater burden in a wet season.
When I was there, it was too early in the spring to make any particular observation on the blade, but the farmer’s account is as follows: – viz. ‘that it generally grows to a height of about 18 inches, and then falls and runs along the ground, in knots, to the length of 16 or 18 feet, but that he has known instances of its running to the length of 24 feet.’ The meadow contains about two acres and a half. It is mowed twice in a season, and the average quantity is generally about twelve loads (tons) of hay the first mowing, and six the second, though sometimes considerably more. The tithe of the meadow has been compounded for, a nine pounds a year.**
** This account appeared to us so singular, and the crop of grass so very extraordinary, that our secretary went to Orcheston to examine more particularly into it. The farmer, and divers other persons in the village, confirmed the account contained in this letter of its amazing produce in summers when the meadow had been overflowed in the preceding winter and spring; but when the winter had been dry, and the meadow not overflowed, the crop of grass was not near so large. There did not appear to be any thing peculiar in the soil; nor were the other plants or weeds growing on it more luxuriant than in many other similar situations. Some of this grass was sent to the society at Norwich; some ingenious members of which, inform us, that they think it is a species of the agrostis polymorpha, mentioned by Hudson in his Flora Anglica, of which there are several varieties.
Camden mentions in his Britannia, a grass growing near the place where this is found, which he calls trailing dogs grass, and says that hogs were fed with it.
From all the inquiry made, we have not found this species of grass growing in any other part of the kingdom; hence it is possible that there may be something in the soil of this meadow peculiarly favourable to its growth.
The grass is of a sweet nature; all cattle and even pigs eat it very eagerly. When made into hay it is excellent, and improves beasts greatly. The farmer says his horses eat it in preference to corn mixed with chaff, when both are set before them together.
Should the society wish for further information or assistance, I shall be happy in doing every thing in my power to promote their views.” Letters and papers, vol 1, pp.94, 1780:
Mr Curtis next enters the field of this inquiry:
‘It is perhaps no small recommendation to the poa trivialis, that it is a principal grass in that uncommonly productive meadow near Salisbury, mentioned by Stillingfleet, and more particularly described in the memoirs of the Bath Agricultural Society. Vol I. p.94
The account given of the extraordinary fertility of this meadow, excited our curiosity, and induced us to request a gentleman residing near the spot to favour us with six small turfs, cut up in different parts of the said meadow, and
We shall not however determine on this point, but recommend trials to be made for propagating it, by sowing the seed in other places, subject to be overflowed in the same manner. If it can be propagated generally, it must turn out the most profitable to the farmer of any grasses yet discovered, and be of great benefit to the community.
Which being planted in our garden, Lambeth Marsh, produced as follows:
Turf 1 – Poa Trivialis, Ranunculus acris, Triticum repens, Agrostis palustris
Turf 2 – Poa Trivialis, Alopecurus pratensis, Triticum repens.
Turf 3 – Poa Trivialis, Agrostis palustris
Turf 4 – Poa Trivialis, Triticum repens, Peucedanmus Silaus
Turf 5 – Poa Trivialis, Alopecurus pratensis, Agrostis palustris, Avena elatior, Triticum repens
This experiment proves in a great degree at least, what we long before suspected, that the extraordinary fertility of this meadow, arose not from any new grass peculiar to it, but from several unusual circumstances, concurring and favouring in an uncommon degree the growth of certain well known grasses, especially the poa trivialis, and agrostis palustris.’ – Observations on British grasses. 1790, p.57:
Lastly Mr Davies of Longleat, in his Wiltshire Report of 1794, has the following passage:
‘[see the full quotation given in the entry, above, in 1794]
From the variety of these accounts, it appears, that to the very latest information, and after the subject had obtained the attention of botanists, nothing decisive has been published, to shew what the grass really is, especially as the turfs sent to Mr Curtis might not contain, in a due proportion, the prevalent grass.
I could cut turfs in that meadow, which would totally deceive a botanist.
At Maddington, inquiring the way to the meadow, I was highly fortunate in meeting with Mr John Gibbs, who, a few years ago, was proprietor of the farm to which the meadow belongs, and occupied it, before he sold it, during eight years. I was thus at the very fountain head of intelligence.
Mr Gibbs informed me, that for one of the meadows (there are two, one of an acre, the other an acre and half) containing 1½ acre, he was repeatedly offered 500 guineas. This is 350l an acre, and supposing land to pay 3 per cent. this price ascertains the fair rent to be 12l 5s per acre, exclusive of land tax. This is very great, and exceeds anything I ever met with in England, and approaches the very finest vineyards in France. The Clos de Veaujeau, in Burgundy, was sold by the Convention, I think, for about 400l an acre.
This gentleman further informed me, that he has very often (except after dry winters, when the produce is not great) mown ten tons of hay from the acre and half, at two cuttings. He once, before mowing it, kept 206 couples, worth 6d a week each, ten days, and then got a great crop of hay. He says, that the cause of its great fertility is the winter floods; a stream, after four miles of course, flows over it, and some winter springs rise in the meadow itself; but in summer the whole is dry. He calls the peculiar grass, knot grass – has measured it 16 feet long, but one plant was once drawn out, 22 feet long, and marked to that length on the wall of an alehouse in the vicinity. The same plant abounds much in the contiguous meadows, but they are not nearly of the same value. On ten acres, his brother has had 35 tons of hay. The grass, both green and in hay, uncommonly nourishing, especially for sheep, but liked much by every species of stock.
Such was the intelligence which Mr Gibbs gave me, while he had the goodness to accompany me in my chaise, to the ground where he pointed out what he calls the knot grass, upon which alone he considers the extraordinary circumstances of the meadow to depend.
I found the scite to be a level space, of 2½ acres, divided by a post and rail, and bounded on one side by a hedge, the very shallow ditch of which is the channel of the winter stream, with several breaches in the bank, by which the water must enter the meadow. The hay had been mown and cleared, and after grass nine or ten inches high, and very thick. I had a trowel with me for examining the soil, and raising roots of the plants. There is, upon the immediate surface of the soil, a mat of stalks of the knot grass, closely interwoven, of an inch or two of thickness. These being removed, I came to a mere bed of flints, with scarcely any mould until many were removed, and then the loose sandy loam very much mixed with them. The soil may, therefore, properly be called a bed of flints with a mixture of mould, on (like all the country) a chalk bottom. A narrow, flat, flinty vale between high hills of chalk, is everywhere very fertile, but not sufficiently so as to account for the fertility of this peculiar spot, which evidently depends on the grass and the water. Of the latter I could see nothing – the former, I searched minutely to discover some spikes, and found many – and extracted several of the length of four or five feet, by very carefully tracing them and eradicating the little roots, struck from the joints in trailing on the bed of flints. The habit of jointing and rooting is very like the agros stolonifera, but it is, without question, the POA TRIVIALIS.
The meadow of 1½ acre, is composed chiefly of this plant, but in the other there is a great quantity of peucedanum – some ranaculus – a little bind weed – some dandelion – and scattered in most parts of the whole, some triticum repens. These plants, however, are of small account, for the peculiar and predominant growth is the poa trivialis.
From the meadow I went to the farm house; Mr Skates, the present occupier, was not at home; but his wife showed me the hay stack which was made from the meadow without any mixture from other fields. Here I found a sprinkling of alopecurus pratensis, but the mass, poa trivilalis.
I did not trust to my own knowledge or accuracy in this decision; but bringing away some plants entire, have since showed them to various distinguished botanists – among others, to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society; and they all confirm the fact. At last therefore this great desideratum in agricultural botany is gained; and the question which has for som long puzzled the learned and unlearned is decided.
There are considerable tracts of the land in this kingdom, in situation and circumstances very nearly resembling this bourn of Orcheston, where, if this sort of poa was cultivated, a similar success might probably be experienced; but without supposing an equality, if this grass was found to be found more productive in a flinty vale, winter watered from chalk hills, than any other, it would be wise to cultivate it; and this celebrated meadow which has attracted attention uselessly for two hundred years, would be made the means of improving various tracts of land, capabale of yielding by such means superior products.”
1798, Marshall, The Rural Economy of the Southern Counties, by Mr Marshall of London, Volume II.2, pp.2-7. “[a useful account of chalk farming in Wiltshire]
p.299. 1798. Amesbury to Warminster. Ascend the downs behind Amesbury Park, ….. there are extensive, naked views, both smooth and beautiful. You enter the plain, or more level parts of the downs, at Stone Henge. The surface is gently flowing, tamer even than the high wolds of Yorkshire, and moe extensive. Cross a gentle dip at Orchestone, and leave a fine valley on the left, below Chitterne…..’
p.304. Soil, Amesbury to Warminster. The lower skirts of the plain are covered with a deep, highly coloured soil. It is good corn land and only wants shelter to render it highly proper for mixed cultivation.’
p.310. The thinner, higher soils are in a state of perpetual sheep walk….. Barns on pillars are of especial note.’
p.324. The leading objects of the chalk hill farmers appear, in great measure, to be corn and sheep as their chief products. Some cows are kept, and small quantities of cheese are sent to market as a secondary object.’
p.328. The meadows of Amesbury, as well as those of the Avon, are proper subjects of study. It should be recollected, however, that that the waters of chalk hills are tractable, are not so liable to high floods as ordinary brooks; which would not so well admit of ‘hatches, mains and carriers’, would tear the works asunder; unless guarded with extraordinary care. How advantageous, where calcareous water is thus under command! And how long the advantage has been reaped, in this division of the Chalk Hills; and in this, only.
p.338. The ‘Long Grass Meads’ of Orcheston. It will be right to premise, that my visit to these meadows, at so early a season, the 26 April 1794, was a matter of circumstance rather than of choice; and all I expected to gain by it was a general idea of their situation, their soil, and the formation of their surface, or the manner in which the water is applied to them; with little hope of ascertaining the herbage. But I happened to find them in a peculiar state; and a sketch of what struck me, in the cursory view I took of them, may be useful to those who may hereafter examine them at a more favourable season.
The situation of these grounds is a gentle dip or shallow valley, formed by smooth easy swells of the Downs; such a passage as is easily seen, towards the heads of vallies, in every chalk district.
The soil, too, is a pale brown loam; similar to the soils usually found between such chalky swells. It was, at the time I saw it, as firm and dry as the Downs on either side of it.
The surface remains as nature left it; no artificial formation whatever appears to have taken place. The part which receives the benefit of the water is merely a dilation of the base of the valley; which, above and below this expansion, contracts, so as to give no width of space for the water to lodge upon; the sides of the valley shelving down, immediately, to the channel of the rivulet; whereas the surface of the meadowy part is level or inconsiderably dishing.
This open part of the valley, containing some 4 or 5 acres, is cut into four compartments by cross fences. The uppermost includes, merely, a narrowing point of the dilation; and appears to be used as a pasture ground. The lowermost has, formerly, been inclosed; but the hedges having been neglected, it now, in effect, lies open to the downs. It theretheless, appears still to be used, as a mowing ground. The two middle divisions, containing only 2 or 3 acres, are those of which fame has long spoken in mystic language.
The water, by which such wonders have been wrought, is one of those periodic springs that appear to be common in the chalk hills of this Island; similar to the Gypsies of Yorkshire and the Bourns of Surrey and Kent.
The water at Orcheston usually breaks out (at some distance above these meadows), about Christmas; but in 1794 not until within a few weeks of when I saw them; and, then, the supply must have been inconsiderable, as it only entered the middle meadows with a feeble strem the day I went over them; when a narrow slip of the uppermost ground was deeply covered, with pale coloured, chalky water; as we frequently see similar hollows in times of flood. The three lower grounds had lain entirely dry, until that time; a circumstance which had not, I was told by an elderly labourer, who has frequently mown in these grounds, been known within memory.
The herbage, at that time and under these circumstances, was as follows. It varied in the different compartments, and appeared, throughout, in irregular plots.
Much of the lowest meadow, (and some small parts of the other) was thickly covered with a species of alopecurus, or foxtail; which, in stature, resembled the pratensis, or meadow foxtail; but in the manner of its growth, the geniculatus, or marsh, or flote foxtail. Some of this grass was then in head – a few individuals in blow, and from 2 to 2½ feet high. Much of that which had not yet shot up its spikes, was from 12 to 15 inches high; having the appearance, at some distance, of a very full crop of grass – at this early season!
In the middle meadows, a soft open bladed grass prevailed; apparently an agrostis, or bent grass; but not having then sent up its panicle, its particular species did not appear (footnote – In 1797, by the information of a person, who went to gather specimens of the herbage of these meadows, presently before hay harvest – “the springs did not rise, as usual”; and he found them in a state of pasturage; “the grass not being good enough to mow.” The season was dry.) This grew in small upright bunches, without any prevailing aptitude to trail. The next most prevailing plant, in this compartment, was the mild, or creeping crowfoot (ranunculus repens), with some plants of the common crowfoot (ranunculus acris) then very tall and luxuriant.
The interspaces, of these tall plants and bunches of herbage, were in a manner bare; saving some scattered plants of nettles, comfrey, scorpion weed (myosstis scorpioides), and groundivy – the last is a natural inhabitant of dry banks; and is a strong symptom of the absorbency of the subsoil.
These grounds, I was told, are mown every year, sometimes twice. My informant has cut three loads, an acre. The herbage hangs together, as wool – “hard work to mow it; very long, Sir – five feet high, fourteen feet long.” But he spoke in the tone of enthusiasm; and probably by rote.
To gain full information respecting these extraordinary grounds (for such they doubtless are) they should have a day’s examination, presently before they are mown. The occupiers should be apprized, – proper tools be provided, to search beneath the soil, – and ample specimens of the subsoil, the soil and the herbage should be taken. A specimen of the water, taken at the season, when it is known to be most beneficial, would likewise be requisite, for the purpose of analysis.
Remarks. By far the most important part of the information, that my transient view of these celebrated grounds afforded me, is the manner in which they are watered. No art appears to be used; except that of diverting the rivulet, from its narrow channel, on one side of the meadow, and spreading it over the area, in one continuous pool of STAGNANT WATER! Not on the scientific principle of CIRCULATION; but the more simple and natural one of FLOODING; agreeably to the obsolete practice of FLOATING UPWARDS, a practice which, it is highly probable, was once prevalent in this part of the Island. The term “DROWNING”, which is now inaptly applied to the modern practice, strongly corroborates this suggestion. Seeing the natural flatness of the valleys of these hills, little art is wanted, to produce the required stagnation. And it may be further conceived, that, where the substrata were open, and suffered the remaining moisture (after the body of water was let off) to drain away, quickly, from the roots of the herbage, so as to permit them to act, presently after the water was discharged, vegetation was rapid…